Elon Musk, SpaceX, Tesla

Launch of Dragon spacecraft via Falcon 9 rocket in December 2010Elon Musk

Innovation, Global Impact, and Achieving Success

By Kayla Ngan
April 5, 2012

Elon Musk is a company creator—and an excellent one at that. In addition to being co-founder of Zip2 Corporation, Tesla Motors, and PayPal, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). He currently serves as CEO and CTO at SpaceX and as CEO and Product Architect at Tesla. In short, he is no stranger to entrepreneurial success. From conceiving the world’s largest Internet payment system, to constructing the first private spaceship to successfully return from Earth’s orbit, to designing the first electric sports car, it would seem that Musk has company creation down to a science.

Launch of Dragon spacecraft via Falcon 9 rocket in December 2010
Photo by SpaceX/Chris Thompson

On Thursday, March 15, 2012, MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) Program held its first Speaker Series event of the year by inviting Musk to speak with its fellows. The series encourages industry leaders and SDM Fellows to share insights and experiences pertinent to challenges and advancements in business and technology. The session, which was open to SDM Fellows only, was very well-received by those in attendance.

Throughout the hour, Musk spoke about innovation, global impact, and his personal philosophies on achieving success. He also highlighted the importance of diversity of skills, personalities, and mindsets that are necessary for a business to grow and prosper.

When asked how he arrives at new ideas for new ventures, Musk explained, "the Internet, sustainable energy, and space exploration were the three ways I thought technology would most affect the future of humanity and I wanted to be involved in that." He described his recognition of the "need to accelerate the advent of electric cars" and his vision for people to live on other planets and therefore making it possible for humanity to become multi-planetary. To turn these dreams into reality, Musk’s solution was to start companies.

Nowadays, Musk splits his 90-hour work weeks between SpaceX and Tesla Motors—about 45 hours per company—and claims that it’s "not really that much." Through these endeavors, he has identified critical thinking, attention to negative feedback, and reasoning from first principles—the most basic, elemental laws in a given field—as crucial for thriving in the workplace. Musk explained that people should embrace negative feedback from others as if "they’re giving you gold" and then adjust their actions accordingly. As for first principles, Musk stressed that fundamental truths in an industry, not analogy or past precedent, should be used to determine if a product will work.

For many in attendance, Musk’s mention of first principles was a welcome reminder of what they’ve learned previously. As Neil Gadhok, co-chair for this event, commented, "I was glad to hear his discussion on reasoning from first principles, as it aligned with my own experience and what we have been taught at MIT. I and certainly many in the SDM cohort will keep the ESD.34 System Architecting principles and Elon’s insights in mind as we return to industry."

Though Musk certainly has his hands full now with his upcoming launch for SpaceX, some might wonder what else he has up his sleeve. Musk told the audience, "Double decker freeways would be awesome."

Elon Musk
Photo courtesy of SpaceX